What does “at will” employment really mean?

Most folks in Idaho know that generally employees are hired under the “at will” employment rule.  Theoretically, this means that an employer can fire someone for (the cliche) “good cause, bad cause, or no cause at all.”  It also means that the employee can quit at any time and for any reason.  However, lots of people misunderstand how this rule actually plays out in practice.  Employers can run into many problems by cavalierly firing employees on the assumption that they are “at will.”  And employees who lose their jobs might fail to assert their legal rights on the belief that their former employer’s actions were lawful due to their “at will” status.

So what does “at will” really mean?  The general concept is correct — at will employees are not under a contract for employment of any particular duration.  Thus, the employer or employee can terminate that relationship at any time and for any reason not otherwise contrary to law.  This last phrase is the part that most people forget (ignore?) and is the part that causes the trouble.

So what does this phrase mean?  For starters, there are a variety of federal laws that place restrictions on the employment relationship:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin)
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (prohibits discrimination on the basis of age for people at least age 40)
  • The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability)
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (placing further requirements on the employment relationship in dealing with disabilities)
  • The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (protecting union and collective bargaining activities)
  • The Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 (governing requests for leave due to certain qualifying events)
  • The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (governing minimum wage, overtime, and child labor issues)

Termination of someone’s employment could violate one or more of these laws, entitling the employee to a variety of remedies including money damages and reinstatement to the position.

Idaho also follows a rule called the “Implied Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing.”  Among other things, this rule means that an employer who fires someone for malicious reasons (in “bad faith”) could theoretically be liable even though the firing doesn’t violate any of the federal laws above.

So what does all this mean?  If you are the employer, thinking about letting someone go or using any other form of discipline (suspension, reprimand, etc.), you need to pause to consider a variety of potential issues regarding that termination, preferably with the advice of an attorney who understands employment issues.  If you are the employee and you have recently lost your job or your employer has taken some action against you, you should consider whether that action might violate one of the many protections in place, again preferably with the advice of an attorney who understands these issues.

The employee-employer relationship is an increasingly complicated one.  As I will discuss in future articles, the protections to employees continue to expand, and the risk and burden on employers expands alongside.

One comment

  1. […] States, several federal laws bar discrimination in employment on a number of grounds.  In a recent post, I outlined those laws.  The only one that seems to apply in this case would be the Americans with […]

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